Promotion, Relegation, and American Exceptionalism
Back in 1992 America first saw how dominant its homegrown professional athletes could be. The Dream Team entered the Olympics and proceeded to rip opponents apart. The ease at which these athletes demolished the competition in the Olympic tournament was almost ridiculous. This was followed by utter domination for the next few FIBA World Championships and Olympic Games. Then relatively quickly the world caught up. USA Basketball finally bottomed out in 2002, just ten years after the Dream Team, finishing sixth at the FIBA World Championship.
So why exactly am I writing about basketball on a soccer blog site? If you have read any of my material you probably know the theory that I have about basketball and soccer being very similar sports. Sure there are differences, but the creativity is interchangeable.
In fact it is the similarities between soccer and basketball that have allowed the rest of the world to catch the United States Men’s National Basketball Team so quickly. Teams in Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil, and Argentina (all soccer playing nations) have caught up with, and some might even say surpassed, the USA. But how? The NBA is the top league in the world, by far, but what is going on in the European and South American leagues that have developed several foreign players #1 overall draft picks? What is it about the other countries’ programs have held the USA, since 2000, to only two Gold Medals? A sense of American exceptionalism in athletics had a lot to do with the world catching up quickly. It is that same sense of athletic entitlement that is slowing the success of American soccer with a refusal to try new things, namely promotion-relegation.
Writing about American exceptionalism is not me trying to sound like a hipster or an anti American, it’s just that –especially in athletics– we see America’s biggest leagues not trying foreign things (other than Japanese pitchers). Even the thought of something foreign worries owners. MLS does not want to be like the EPL or La Liga, instead it uses the four bigger American leagues as its frame of reference. The league struggles with the idea of promotion-relegation. Just this year, MLS commissioner Don Garber stated it is not likely to happen. This is most likely because the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, and MLL do not do it. The problem is a league commissioner does not, or rather should not, have final say over implementing promotion-relegation or opening up a pyramid, the FA –United States Soccer Federation in this case– does.
Americans view America, especially American athletics, as being the biggest and best. “Rochester is too small!” screech the critics. “The teams in the second and third division just can’t cut it!” they shriek. They ignore the Richmond Kickers ripping through the US Open Cup. They forget that the Puerto Rico Islanders dismantled the LA Galaxy in CONCACAF Champions League. No attention is given as Orlando City –a viable MLS market– destroys MLS teams in friendlies. One starts to wonder how much credence these claims of MLS’s superiority are. These second and third division teams would not lose from a promotion to MLS, so the question becomes; who would?
The easy answer is apathetic sports owners. The current economic recession was, partially, caused by people wanting to own things that they had no right owning. People bought boats, cars, homes, and islands for the status of owning them. It was the American dream! Stepping back into the basketball realm for a moment, we see Donald Sterling. Though Sterling crash landed into Blake Griffith no one would ever mistake the Los Angeles Clippers for a “nice thing”. The man has no right to own the Clipper, or any other sports team. But as long as he can afford them it doesn’t matter how bad they are. “If only we could stop him!” they scream. In a perfect world of promotion and relegation Sterling’s Clippers would have been relegated to the NBADL or ABA (glad to see not only NASL trying to live off past glories) years ago. He would have destroyed an investment, and maybe would have sold off the team, but instead the Clippers are still being ruined like Sterling was Bernie Madoff and they are the American economy.
Looking back at soccer in America the team I always look at (probably because I support them) are the New England Revolution. Bob Kraft is looked at by many MLS fans as someone who is in the MLS game solely to host international friendlies at Gillette. Imagine a world where Kraft’s team was relegated to NASL; would this make Kraft leave behind the Revs and sell them? People worry about losing the Boston market, but imagine the Dorchester Minutemen (a team I made up for this blog) moving up to MLS. Would they really be any worse than the Revs have been this season? Probably not, but instead of punishment for a dysfunctional ownership group Kraft gets more money for allocation and a higher draft pick. There is no incentive for the Revs front office to develop more players like DiegoFagundez, when they can just randomly pick one from the college draft.
But these positives are not looked at by the anti promotion-relegation people. Instead they worry about the facilities for USL and NASL teams. These facilities would be an embarrassment to Americans everywhere. “They’ll make us look second class!” they bellow. Yet QPR, who just this season was promoted to the Premier League, plays in a stadium that holds 18,360 people. Meanwhile the home of the Richmond Kickers (who are in USL, which is the third division) can hold 22,000. Puerto Rico Islanders hold 15,000, NCS Northstars 12,000, Orlando City could hold over 60,000.
Granted the Carolina Railhawks can hold 7,000 and the Atlanta Silverbacks can hold 8,000, but they both have their own facilities, unlike the Revolution, DC United, and San Jose Earthquakes. In addition, if a team is able to stay in a top division they will garner interest and expand their stadiums.
“Bob Kraft has lost millions investing in MLS!” they yelp. “He should be able to recoup his loss!” Tell that to the people who lost their entire savings in the market playing bad stocks. They probably would not feel too empathetic towards Mr. Kraft. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate all that Bob Kraft did, but I do not appreciate what he is currently doing. He is in MLS and he is not going anywhere, because there is no direct competition for his job. Promotion-relegation, quite simply, is as American as apple pie. You work hard to get where you are. You start at the bottom and work your way to the top.
Or perhaps this is unsurprising. Many unemployed Americas are refusing to take a job at McDonalds because they feel they are better than that. In Alabama, since the passage of their immigration bill, farmers are finding Americans don’t want to pick crops from minimal pay. We as a nation have grown apathetic. We want to be given top status –for a hefty fee of $100 million– and never have it taken away regardless of how apathetically we perform on the job. Meanwhile we scoff at the idea of working from the bottom to the top.
So how does this tie back to the Dream Team analogy? European basketball teams worked on developing their younger talent so that they could one day compete with America. But before they worried about competing with the giant in the room they worried about the giant in their own backyard. They developed players at younger ages and levels for lower team, and then either sold them to richer teams, or kept them together so that they could move up into top flight basketball leagues.
In essence they applied the soccer model to basketball and it worked. MLS is applying the basketball model to soccer, and while it has kept the league afloat and improving little by little, it might be time to try something else. If the Carolina Railhawks are better than the New England Revolution why not give them a shot at bigger things?
When a student fails a grade he is held back, not given extra points to move on to the next grade. Well, at least that’s how it used to be. Now no child is left behind, and in MLS neither is any team. Afterall we wouldn’t want to hurt an owner’s self esteem. We wouldn’t want to give someone’s job to the most qualified candidate. We want to compete with the world, but we just want to stick with the status quo.
Something is wrong in this equation. And until we try something new (actually old) nothing is going to change.